What shapes Russia's calculus in the Syrian theater? Since its formal decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war in September 2015, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has become a guarantor of the stability of the Assad regime, as well as a key power broker in any conceivable solution to the ongoing crisis. Yet, two years on, Moscow's motivations for its continued presence in Syria are still not well understood by most observers, either in the Middle East or in the West.
The first of these factors is a search for strategic position.
Russia sees itself as a great power, and as an indispensable player in global politics. It consequently seeks to expand its strategic freedom of maneuver, and to shore up its military and political standing, wherever international conditions allow.
The early stages of the Syrian civil war called this priority into question by threatening Russia's foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean, which since the early 1970s had centered on access to the naval port at Tartus. The need to preserve that basing arrangement played a significant role in shaping Russia's 2015 decision to intervene in the Syrian conflict, and much of Moscow's efforts since then have centered on solidifying its military presence in the Levant.
The results are striking. Over the past two years, Russia has succeeded in reinforcing its naval base at Tartus, establishing a new air base at Latakia (and beginning construction of other military facilities), forward deploying an expanded naval force in the Eastern Mediterranean, and—most recently—securing a long-term lease for the Hmeymim air base in northwest Syria. The aggregate result is that Russia's strategic position in Syria, and its ability to project power into the broader region, is significantly better today than it was two years ago.
The second factor driving Russia's presence is an ongoing need to preserve its political momentum.
After all, at the time of Russia's intervention in Syria in September 2015, the Kremlin was embroiled in another military engagement closer to home, in neighboring Ukraine. The course of that conflict has helped shape the Russian government's approach to Syria.
Specifically, despite its initial optimism, Russia's strategic gains vis-à-vis Ukraine have been more meager than originally anticipated. This has been due in part to the growing strength and professionalism of the Ukrainian army, as well as to the military assistance now being rendered to the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko by NATO member nations. Involvement in Syria has therefore come to be seen by many Russian officials as a convenient way of "changing the conversation" away from Ukraine, and conveying the image of Russian strategic dynamism in a different theater.
Finally, Russia's Syrian strategy is designed in large part to counter Islamist currents.
Although not commonly understood in the West, Russia is a nation in the throes of a massive demographic transition. While the population of the Russian Federation as a whole is declining, its Muslim minority is expanding and could account for as much as 1/5th of the national population within the next several years.
This growing cohort is now radicalizing and mobilizing. According to official Russian government estimates, roughly a third of the more-than-30,000 foreign fighters that have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to date hail from either the Russian Federation itself or from countries in Central Asia. The Kremlin is acutely aware of this jihadist contingent, and its ongoing involvement in the Syrian crisis is at least partially a defensive strategy aimed at eliminating those radicals before they return home.
Over the past two years, these considerations have helped propel Russia into a key role in the Syrian conflict. Today, however, Moscow's approach faces both obstacles and opportunities.
On the one hand, support for the Kremlin's Syria campaign is clearly dwindling among Russia's elites and on the Russian "street." In a recent survey carried out by the Levada Center, a well-respected Russian polling institute, nearly half of respondents said that Russia's military intervention should draw to a close, and soon. This state of affairs makes the Kremlin's need for a decisive political victory—and for success that can be measured in Russian domestic terms—greater than ever before.
On the other, a Syrian settlement that is broadly consistent with Russia's long-term strategic interests now seems more and more likely. With the decline of the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, Bashar al-Assad's once-precarious position has strengthened considerably. Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future, the Syrian dictator is expected to need international support and involvement in order to combat the assorted opposition to his rule, as well as to ensure the territorial integrity of the fractured Syrian state.
This state of affairs gives the Kremlin an opening to help shape a political solution to the current crisis. If it is successful in doing so, a long-term Russian strategic presence will undoubtedly become a fixture of the new Syria. So, too, could military operations throughout the country—and beyond—that are designed to eliminate perceived threats to the Russian state and its interests.